Senate votes to raise debt limit, approves $15 billion in hurricane relief

Approves measure 80-17
An airman hands off bottled water by a helicopter at a military staging area for Harvey relief efforts in Beaumont, Texas.
An airman hands off bottled water by a helicopter at a military staging area for Harvey relief efforts in Beaumont, Texas.

WASHINGTON — The Republican-led Senate on Thursday approved legislation to raise the debt limit and keep the government funded until December while providing $15 billion in disaster aid, giving a reluctant stamp of approval to the surprising deal President Donald Trump struck with Democratic congressional leaders.

The Senate approved the measure 80-17. All of the senators voting no were Republicans.

The Senate acted quickly to provide funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency as it helps Texas recover from Hurricane Harvey, and the federal government will probably be stretched further as Hurricane Irma heads toward Florida. The House passed a measure Wednesday providing about $7.9 billion in disaster aid, and the Senate beefed up that aid package by adding another $7.4 billion, for a total of about $15.3 billion.

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“The recovery effort for a record-setting storm like Harvey has strained resources to the limit already,” said the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. “The advance of another historic storm now makes the need for action even more urgent.”

Republican leaders had wanted a longer-term extension of the debt limit, but were left with little recourse when Trump sided with the top Democrats in Congress, Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York and Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, at a White House meeting Wednesday, blindsiding his own party.

The fiscal deal eases the pressure to resolve a thicket of pressing issues this month, but it sets up a high-stakes faceoff later this year when lawmakers will need to agree on another funding measure to keep the government open in the long term. Congress will also need to take further action to raise the government’s borrowing capacity and likely will face a far larger hurricane-relief package. Democrats hope to be able to negotiate with Republicans on other issues, too, such as immigration and a measure to stabilize health insurance markets.

The measure approved Thursday would continue government funding through Dec. 8 and extend the debt limit for the same period. It would also temporarily extend the National Flood Insurance Program, which will expire Sept. 30.

Schumer continued to revel in the sudden deal with the president, describing the agreement as a “ray of hope for both parties” and talking up the virtues of bipartisanship.

“This agreement is a reminder that we don’t always have to wait until the eleventh hour — risking shutdown, risking default — in order to compromise and do the right thing,” Schumer said.

But that was little consolation to conservatives already frustrated that Republican leaders were moving toward raising the government’s borrowing capacity without also putting in place spending cuts or other conservative policy changes.

“What we’re doing in this body today is not draining the swamp,” said Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., who voted no. “What we’re doing is running a whole bunch of hoses to the edge of the swamp, turning them on to the highest possible volume flow, and then turning our backs on the swamp and shouting, ‘There’s nothing to see here!’ ”

Sasse offered a warning about the leverage that Democrats would hold later this year, saying that despite being the minority leader, Schumer “just made himself the most powerful man in America for the month of December.”

Another Republican who voted no, Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma, said it had become clear that the debt limit was no longer being viewed as “a chance to actually tackle our runaway debt problems.”

“Rather, it is used as a political football to move through the pending business of the day,” he said.

Before approving the legislation, the Senate rejected a proposal by Sasse to pass only the hurricane relief measure that had sailed through the House, without the debt limit or stopgap spending measure as part of it. Lawmakers also rejected a proposal by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., to pay for hurricane relief using funds intended to be spent on foreign aid.

The Senate-approved measure must also be approved by the House, where its passage seems all but assured given the expected Democratic support for it. Still, conservatives unhappy about how the debt limit is being handled will have to decide whether that matter justifies a “no” vote on a measure providing billions of dollars in hurricane relief.

In a sign of the dissatisfaction over the deal, the leadership of the Republican Study Committee, a conservative bloc of more than 150 House members, came out against it Thursday.

“Not attaching any kind of reform to the debt ceiling shows irresponsibility, as opposed to fiscal responsibility,” said Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., the group’s chairman.

Heritage Action for America, a conservative group, urged lawmakers to vote against what it described as the “Pelosi-Schumer-Trump debt ceiling deal.”

“Beyond the politics of exploiting hurricane victims and potentially delaying much-needed disaster relief, the proposed combination is wrong on policy grounds,” the group wrote.

The $15 billion in disaster aid is expected to be just the first piece of the overall aid that Congress provides in response to Hurricane Harvey. And with Hurricane Irma approaching Florida, there was already talk in the Senate about taking further action to ensure the government can respond to storm victims.

“I want the Senate to be forewarned that this $15 billion package, this is only temporary,” said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla. “It will probably only take us through mid-October at the most, with the massive amount of requirements in Texas, and add to that at least that much, if not more, for the Eastern Seaboard.”

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